In response to comments made by Babak Makkinejad in the discussion of my post on the future of the Israeli lobby, I recalled earlier observations he had made on this blog about the central role played by a kind of secular cult of the Holocaust in the post-war West. Responding, he suggested that the implication was that this cult was superior to Islam. So not only were powerful Christian states – 'this time in their post-Christian pretension phase' – once again confronting Muslim sentiment, and indeed Islam, on the question of the political disposition of Palestine: the issue was once again becoming 'one inspired by religious sentiment on all sides.'
And this, he went on to argue, was a costly policy for the Western powers, 'as in essence, it tells Muslims that they are an inferior people whose concerns in regards to Palestine are irrelevant to the Euro-Atlantic states.'
I would stress that I was not, in the comments to which Babak Makkinejad was responding, making a personal judgement on the objective value of the cult of the Shoah – and certainly not suggesting it should be seen as superior to Islam, or expressing contempt for the religion of Muslims. On the question of the wisdom, or lack of it, of creating this impression, I would not disagree with him. It seems to me quite evidently the case that the policies pursued by Israel, and also by the United States and to a somewhat but not so far greatly lesser extent the major European states, are such as to make very many Muslims feel they are seen as inferior people professing a contemptible religion.
And that this is not a very clever thing for Americans and Europeans to do seems to be clear. It is yet another unfortunate manifestation of the widespread inability of contemporary Western elites to grasp how important a motivator religious and quasi-religious beliefs are for most people – and indeed, very frequently, for themselves.
It is also in my view peculiarly stupid for Israelis to believe that their current superiority in power means that they can prudently treat Muslim sentiment with contempt. And this, I think, reflects an inability to grasp that a short-term preponderance of power, however great, is something quite different from a strategic position sustainable over the long term.
As Haaretz commented, by declaring the conflict insoluble, Netanyahu 'is dooming Israel to live eternally by the sword, leaving no opening for reconciliation and understanding with the Palestinians and the Arab and Muslim world.' But the notion of an Israel doomed to conflict without end as 'the nation state of the Jewish people' contains an obvious contradiction. Fundamental to Zionism was the notion that Israel would provide a safe refuge for Jews threatened by Gentile persecution. However while Jews motivated by religious and ethno-nationalist fervour may have good reasons to live in Israel, the notion that a Jew is safer in Jerusalem than, say, in New York, London, or indeed Berlin has for a long time seemed questionable, to put it mildly.
(And indeed, if one took seriously the apocalyptic presentation of the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran presented by Netanyahu – and Jeffrey Goldberg – a Jew taking his family from New York to Jerusalem in 2011 would appear almost as incautious as one taking his family from New York to Warsaw would have been in 1933.)
Absent any possibility of a durable peace, the whole notion of Israel as refuge becomes simply ludicrous. So the natural corollary of Netanyahu's brand of Zionism is a progressive acceleration of the already very visible degenerative dynamics, whereby Jews concerned for the safety and well-being of themselves and their children seek refuge in the West, or acquire second passports from Western countries to give them the option of doing this, should the situation in Palestine further deteriorate.
And these are things which the highly educated and technologically sophisticated elites on which the long-term prospects of the country depend can very easily do. Taken together with the much higher birthrates of the ultra-orthodox, this means that over time Israel is likely to continue to become less and less representative of Jews as a whole, and more and more dominated by the religious and ethno-nationalist fanatics among them.
What further follows is that the religious dimension of the conflict over Palestine which Babak Makkinejad highlighted is likely to continue to increase in salience. And as this happens, Israel will indeed come to be seen more and more as a major strategic liability by those in Western capitals who can see the acute dangers involved in becoming entangled in a religious conflict, or 'clash of civilisations'.
Moreover, as Israel develops in these directions, the cult of the Shoah comes under strain. Accordingly, the question of the nature of this cult becomes very relevant – which does indeed bring up the question I was not dealing with in my earlier comments, as to how it should be evaluated. Here, I think a great deal hangs upon what specifically is taken to be involved in this cult, and what it is being used to do.
With the Jewish refugees from the various disasters of continental European history who ended up in my own country, Britain, through various routes, in the course of the last century, what is striking is how little they had in common. Beyond a common origin, and a certain position of marginality in the societies from which they came – which itself differed enormously in extent and nature – nothing united European Jews prior to the Holocaust: certainly not a common religion or culture, and still less an identification with a 'national homeland' in Palestine.
Among German Jewish refugees, moreover, many had identified strongly with Germany and German culture, so much so that identification with any specifically Jewish culture had commonly become residual if not indeed non-existent. The Jew who most influenced me when young, who made it here shortly before the war after six weeks in Buchenwald, was an agnostic whose grandparents had converted to Lutheranism, and whose father – as I learnt after his death – had distinguished himself in the Imperial German Army in the First World War.
A paradigm of evil.
So anti-Semitism of the Nazi kind, as also that of the Frenchmen who condemned Dreyfus, and their analogues in the United States and Britain, has always seemed to me something distinct alike from religious intolerance and from the antipathy which people of one culture often feel for those of an alien culture, and far worse than either. And in this sense, that the treatment of the Jews by National Socialist Germany should be regarded as a paradigm of evil, and of a kind of tribalism which none of us in the modern world should or indeed can afford to indulge, has seemed to me wholly appropriate and continues to seem so.
It is hardly surprising that Zionists have made political use of the sense among Gentiles that some element of generalised guilt for the Shoah ought to be born not only by those in the Christian West who were involved in it, facilitated it, or failed to try to stop it – but by Christian civilisation as a whole. And it was of course the greatly respected Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban – hardly a fanatic – who said that 'one of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is not a distinction at all.'
However, the taboo against anti-Semitism has come to be used to stifle criticism of any actions of Israeli governments, however brutal, and also however self-defeating. And this practice of exploiting the cult of the Shoah to censor views which are in no sense anti-Semitic in the sense I have defined is both morally indefensible, and also, once again, self-defeating. The issue was addressed frontally by the veteran Jewish Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman – who as he noted had campaigned for peace with Eban on many platforms – in the House of Commons, at the time of the Israeli attack on Gaza. Guilt among gentiles, Kaufman pointed out, was being cynically exploited:
My parents came to Britain as refugees from Poland. Most of their families were subsequently murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town of Staszow. A German soldier shot her dead in her bed.
My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza. The current Israeli Government ruthlessly and cynically exploit the continuing guilt among Gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians. The implication is that Jewish lives are precious, but the lives of Palestinians do not count."
In saying this, I have no doubt that Sir Gerald was expressing what he thinks. However, I also suspect that he may have been attempting, as it were, to lance a boil.
It is of the nature of cults that opinions which run counter to them – which are taboo – are not expressed. Contrary to what some Zionists appear to believe, lurking behind the taboo one does not find a massive lurking groundswell of anti-Semitism, in the sense I earlier defined it, among Gentiles in Britain: and I would have thought that the same goes for the United States.
What is however I think is present is a growing resentment at what is felt to be an improper exploitation of the taboo against anti-Semitism – and I suspect that awareness of this may have been one reason why Sir Gerald, as a Jew, wanted to point to the cynicism involved.
A facile equation.
The effect of the abuse of the taboo against anti-Semitism to counter criticism of Israel must necessarily, over time, be to weaken the force of the taboo. And indeed, this is patently already happening. Moreover the facile equation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism has another very unfortunate consequence. In suggesting that anti-Zionism could be equated with anti-Semitism, Eban was not simply being manipulative. He was articulating a classic Zionist belief that the true and authentic Jew was the Jew who had moved to the 'national home of the Jewish people', and in so doing put the world of the ghetto decisively behind him, or her.
But to suggest that the true Jew is the inhabitant of the 'national home', obviously, increase the likelihood that how Israelis behave shapes the image of the Jew. It is one thing to do this when the image in question is that of Abba Eban: quite another when it is that of a rabid – and thuggish – ethno-nationalist like Binyamin Netanyahu. And this, again, is a problem which threatens to get much worse, as the balance of Israeli society shifts in favour of ethno-nationalist and religious extremists.
And once again, one cames back to the hole into which Netanyahu has been busily digging himself and Israel. If there is no prospect of peace, and prudential considerations are increasingly likely to impel Jews to seek safety elsewhere, the belief that a revival of virulent anti-Semitism is an ever-present possibility in the United States and Western Europe is liable to become one that it is dangerous for Israelis to abandon.
Suspicion of the world that lies to the East is now so great, that absent suspicion of the world that lies to the West, the lure of that West may be too great. But suspicion of peoples on whose support you ultimately rely – in particular of American Gentiles – also has its dangers.
Moreover, such suspicion is decidedly problematic, for Jews who enjoy, or aspire to, full membership in the elites of the United States, as also of Western Europe -- and above all, for those who are intimately involved in, or aspire to be intimately involved in, shaping the foreign policies of these countries. It may be difficult to remain acceptable, in the longer term, as leaders, if the people you are leading come to feel not only that you are loyal to a country other than their own, but that you suspect them of harbouring, deep down, a kind of dormant virus of hatred against you only waiting to be activated.